For the first time, New Jersey’s Department of Corrections will allow candles to be lit behind bars during the eight days of Hanukka.
The announcement of the one-year pilot project came on Nov. 26, two weeks before the first night of the holiday.
It makes official an agreement between corrections officials and leaders of the state’s Jewish community reached last June and first reported by New Jersey Jewish News.
Until now, only electric and battery-operated menoras were permitted to be used by inmates of state prisons.
Among the negotiators was Roger Jacobs, a West Orange attorney and a past president of the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest.
“A rabbi or Jewish lay person and a corrections officer will be on hand to supervise the eight days of ceremony in a religious observance area, and all of the logistical and security arrangements will be reviewed by the commissioner of corrections,” Jacobs told NJJN.
According to a press release by the Department of Corrections, prisons will designate a room in which a menora will be lit by a member of the prison staff or an authorized volunteer religious group leader. “Participating inmates will be permitted to observe the lighting and the burning of the candles to completion under the supervision of staff,” said the release.
Pressing for the change was Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of the Friendship Circle of MetroWest, an organization run by Chabad. In 2011, friends at the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-run organization that ministers to Jewish prisoners, asked Grossbaum to arrange for a Hanukka candle-lighting at the Essex County Correctional Facility.
Corrections officials denied his first request that each inmate be allowed an individual menora, fearing fires and the possibility that a menora could be converted into a makeshift weapon.
“You can’t make the blessing unless you use candles or some other type of flammable substance,” said Grossbaum. “On an electric menora you can’t make a bracha and fulfill the obligation.”
Since the agreement was reached in June, Grossbaum told NJJN, he has received letters from Jewish prisoners elsewhere “saying how the menora had an impact on them, watching the candles burn and reflecting on their lives and their hopes for the future.”
There are an estimated 55 Jewish inmates in New Jersey's state prisons.
“Our goal is to respect and accommodate religious traditions as best we can in our institutions,” said Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan in the press release. “I am pleased that collaborative discussions between the governor’s office, the Corrections Department, and leaders from New Jersey’s Jewish community have resulted in this pilot program.”